The question is : will this ineluctable success benefit Korea itself, or a rival ? It depends on how smartly and swiftly the Government acts.
1) At last, the Korean Government means business... but it's not the only one !
Yesterday, a "Korean Cuisine To The World 2009" meeting in Seoul set interesting guidelines :
- ambitious targets : Korea aims at the Top 5 of World Cuisines, the number of Korean restaurants overseas must jump from 10,000 to 40,000 between 2007 and 2017, and food export must more than double within the next 3 years
- significant means to reach the targets : a financial boost (KRW 50 bn by 2013 - that's around USD 38 M), a political boost (Food Service Industry Promotion Bill), international partnerships (ie with such international cuisine schools as Le Cordon Bleu)...
Just a reminder : Beijing monitors very closely the way Korean culture is spreading. Hardly a surprise when you consider the way the Middle Kingdom is claiming key Korean heritages (ie revisionism about Goguryeo). And this is potentially big business, so I wouldn't be surprised if the first global franchise of Korean restaurants came from China... filling the gap globally the way Japanese did locally in Paris (ie the Japanese family behind "Korean Barbecue" restaurants).
By the way : Japan is also very much aware of the competitive threat, since a person in charge of promoting Japanese food was invited yesterday.
I'm not sure the Korean Government is fully aware of all the consequences of this show:
- there is no such thing as a top 5 - all cuisines are equally the best ones!
- this doesn't have to be a war, and I hope Korea will not play the traditional, counterproductive, nationalistic, us-vs-them tune... but announcing a presence in the Top 5 can be perceived as a declaration of war : as a collateral damage, it means that another will have to step down
- before Korean cuisine gets the attention it deserves, its promoters surely got the attention from their direct competitors
- as a consequence, Korea cannot afford to waste time and must act swiftly... and responsibly. Typically, Korea cannot let direct competitors attend every strategic meeting.
2) If Korea can be confident in its strenghts, it must also get ready for serious competition !
I hate to mention marketing about food, but let's face it : a big effort has to be done at the conceptual level before going operational. Starting with positioning.
Surveys and benchmarks are probably being waged in major markets, but just in case, here's my pitch.
The World has already clear images of other major cuisines... or rather caricatures and clichés : spicy Thai for instance, or healthy and natural Japanese. Except maybe for the ultradiverse Chinese cuisine and the sometimes too cryptic French menus, most people generally have only a few dishes in mind : sometimes close to the original stuff (ie Tom Yum, sushi), sometimes distant parents (ie a tragedy for Italian cuisine - totally eclipsed by American caricatures of pizza and pastas !).
People with some knowledge of Korean food will probably mention gimchi, bulgogi, maybe bibimpap and doenjang jjigae. And that's a rather good start. There is overall a reputation of rather hot and spicy stuff, but not a clear and positive positioning shared by the masses.
If I were to select 3 words to qualify Korean cuisine's major assets, I'd pick taste, diversity, and intensity.
Korean cuisine is more diverse than what people think, but the same can be said about almost every cuisine across the world. Yet, every promotion campaign keeps hammering this evidence because it is a most vital message to get through : no one should feel excluded, think "this not for me".
You want to try Korean food with friends, and it could even become a sales pitch for young urban targets : unlike with most rivals, there's always a solution at hand for a meat lover, a vegetarian, a fine palate, or say a fire eater. If you don't know Korean food, no problem, most restaurants propose the 4-5 stars that will satisfy all types of gourmets. Just give it a try... and spread the word around !
To me, the stimulating taste / intensity combo is clearly distinctive of Korean cuisine. Eating is living, eating with friends is a lively experience, Korean food is alive, and can be very much kicking thank you.
There are some dull dishes like everywhere else but essentially, it's always been about making the most of scarce ressources, about mixing and giving ingredients a character. Not just selecting the best ingredients, but composing powerful and often rich notes. There are fantastic regional specialities in China, but in Korea, even star dishes keep their intensity, and they simply cannot go with a dilluting MSG sauce. Here, feeding someone is making a statement, and no Korean restaurant can survive over one month if it doesn't taste good.
This major constraint is a clear opportunity, particularily when you see bland pseudo-Japanese sushi bars popping out everywhere across the globe, paradoxically weakening the image of Japanese cuisine, almost commoditizing it.
Among the Top 5, I've already spotted Japan as the weak link in these pages (See Seoul Village - The Gaon 2004) :
"The reputation of Korean cuisine should normally surpass that of Japanese cuisine within 15 to 20 years. Koreans clearly don't play in the same league and the Japanese know it (they adore Korean food). They can fool Westerners with their sense of presentation but as soon as the public tastes actual Korean cuisine, the game is over - for good.
Unfortunately, up to now no Korean restaurant could really visually match their
cuisine, but for some prestigious places embalmed in the cult of Tradition (...)"
(NB : then Gaon came and - gasp - passed away)
Don't get me wrong : I really enjoy Japanese cuisine. But good sushi and sashimi are rare and expensive, and very few restaurants overseas offer great Japanese food beyond the basic hits.
Note that with Korean basic hits, you can please a much wider and much more diverse audience. Bonus : for a very competitive ticket. My advice ? Never underestimate doenjang jjigae. Not the most glamorous dish, but a unique, fantastic and complex taste that surprises many westerners. The best pedagogy will come from those who are already in the know.
Korea is obviously benchmarking Thailand and Japan : both countries launched massive campaigns and multiplied restaurants overseas. OK for some pedagogy and standardization of names (at last!), but if the result is 40,000 places as terrible as the standard sushi joints created over the past few years, forget it : the main result was a worldwide eradication of sea fishes, and the long term annihilation of Japanese cuisine identity.
Consider Paris : "Japanese" restaurants (mostly held by Chinese citizens) have become a cheap commodity, but they all propose the same menu, the same decor, the same limited experience. This fad just can't last. Chinese take outs are legion, but they offer a much richer variety. On the other hand, Japan provides some precious support : food quality control, pedagogic leaflets, waiters with a clean shirt and a smile... That makes a difference at the customer level : you won't meet an outdated fish there, but you'll often bump into sour pork at a "traiteur Chinois".
Developping a labeling system for all kinds of Korean restaurants, pooling some resources in major cities, developping some local farming support, making sure all can provide fresh ketnip (wild sesame leaves)...
Promoting Korean cuisine shouldn't be about imposing a new ruler but about heralding diversity and the return of tasty food. Yes you will eat well and for a reasonable price, but you will keep coming back because you enjoy it.
3) But first of all, Korea must think and act as a member of the Top 5
If you read the press, Koreans lie at the feet of the Himalaya, aiming at a place among the top summits.
That's utterly wrong : Korea is already there. The thing is that people don't know it. And the main hurdle ? Even Koreans don't seem to realise it.
It's only a matter of time, remember ?
But as it decides to claim its own heritage, and the place it deserves, Korea cannot afford to fight against itself.
The Korean Government plans to focus on major international cities, and that makes perfect sense. But only Anglo-Saxon hubs are mentioned, and it seems to me that if you want to take over Japan, China, Italy or France, you must at least strengthen your positions there. Why nurture a complex when your food is so great ? If not greater : come on, I am a French citizen and I do love French food, but I must confess that the vast majority of supposedly very good French restaurants cannot compete with a good Korean restaurant ! Every week, I enjoy moving culinary experiences in the least probable places, which seldom happens to me in Paris. And I can tell it by visitors to my websites : people in France or Italy WANT more Korean restaurants.
Furthermore, and for the zillionth time, how can you promote Korean cuisine overseas when you don't even defend it enough at home ? It saddens me to see high end Korean restaurants that are far better and cheaper than their rivals close simply because Korean customers think it's natural to pay more for Western food (see "Annus Horribilis"). Every 5 star hotel owned by a Korean chaebol should keep a top Korean restaurant : that's a key element of the international image, and subsidies could even be part of the global budget.
Meanwhile, of course, Korea should keep going on its already strong points in marketing, such as information for foreigners (websites, brochures, information centers) : special mention to "Best Korean Restaurants in Seoul" (edited yearly by Seoul City) and its mouthwatering pictures, menu samples with prices, and comments in Korean, English, Chinese, as well as in Japanese (Incheon is doing the same, with all kinds of restaurants).
I read that CJ Foodville took part in yesterday's convention and that's good news. This great company is definitely the ideal champion to develop international franchises both for the masses and for thicker wallets : they have the money, the structure, and even a Hankook Academy to leverage on. Besides, Cafe Sobahn is a promising concept : sound food, revisiting a classic (bibimpap) with a touch of innovation, a modern and not too hype atmosphere.
But CJ will probably have to develop more brands to complete an international Korean cuisine platform. Unfortunately, even for such a big player, it's virtually impossible to build a truly generalist Korean chain in Korea, by essence the most competitive market : every concept sees three me-too products pop up the following week, and margins are so low that only "foreign" food franchises can sell at not too low a price. CJ impressive roster sums it all : VIPS (US style steak and salad family restaurant), Cold Stone (US style ice creams), The Place (American-Italian), Tous les Jours ("French" bakery), China Factory (!!!), and the excellent After The Rain (Thai restaurants in Jeongno-gu and Gangnam)... I guess Seafood Ocean is also a viable business model because of their purchasing power on premium food but there again, this is not "typical Korean".
Where to start, then ? To my great disapointment, a major opportunity was missed at Incheon International Airport, the ultimate entry point for foreigners, and the ideal platform to test a global concept. The result ? Welly's, a terrible brand and a non-concept if I ever saw one. It shouldn't be difficult to do better.
Do aim high but please, don't start too low !
Korea must succeed because Korean cuisine and the Korean people deserve it.
* for instance "Localization key to globalizing Korean food" (The Korea Herald - 20090408), "Korean Cuisine Seeks To Globalize" (Joongang Daily - 20090408), "S Korean gov't to invest $38.1 mln in food industry" (ChinaView - 20090407)...